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Turning Rape Into Art

A Columbia student, Emma Sulkowicz, has taken the experience of her rape and turned it into a performance art piece. She has vowed to carry a mattress everywhere she goes as long as she is forced to attend the same school as her rapist. The mattress is meaningful not only as a metaphor for the burden she must carry, but also signifies the actual object where here rape occurred – in her dorm room bed.

This is the second time I have heard of a young woman transforming her experience of rape into art. The other was Jessie Kahnweiller who made a video satirical called “meet my rapist,” where she runs into her rapist at the farmers market and then starts stalking him, much like the memory of the rape stalks her. The rapist then becomes Jesse’s shadow, and haunts her in every situation as she tries to continue living a normal life. With both these women the message is clear – if you have been raped, the rape doesn’t disappear after the actual act is completed, but it follows you as this abysmal load you are forced haul around everywhere you go.

Sex is a huge part of relationships, intimacy, and adulthood. When you have lived through an act that taints your connection to sex, then you can never go back to your pre-rape attitude towards it. You instead have to rediscover your sexuality post trauma, which has to be incredibly challenging. I am sure that people who have been raped want to get “over it” or “move on” with their lives, but how could you not be reminded of the incident every time you are at your most vulnerable – in the bedroom with someone else about to enter your body.

The fact that these women are expressing their pain through art is pretty remarkable. Watching someone struggle with a mattress is so pedestrian that it is in a way more relatable then trying to understand what it feels like to be raped. It contextualizes the experience so that people who haven’t been raped can viscerally connect to the emotions behind the aftermath. People who haven’t been raped need to understand the plight of those that have. How else are we going to stop rape until everyone has some sort of emotional understanding of the brutality, and feels the same impassioned need to do something about it.

But it does make me wonder about the guys who are doing the raping? How do they feel about that same memory? Powerful? Guilty? Remorseful? Or maybe even worse … do they not think of it at all?

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